In this day and age, with antibiotics being widely prescribed and alcohol use as prevalent as ever, it is unsurprising that the mixed consumption of both is not a rare occurrence. However, while it may be common, it is not always safe. Read on to learn more about antibiotics, their side effects, and how they can interact with alcohol.
What Are Antibiotics?
Though there are antimicrobial agents used to target non-bacterial pathogens, the term “antibiotics” is most commonly reserved for medications that treat bacterial infections. And, though they may prove ineffective against many health issues—including fungal infections, parasitic processes, and viral illnesses such as cold and flu—they can be lifesaving in the fight against various bacterial diseases.1
There are several types of antibiotics available for the treatment of a wide range of conditions, such as:2-6
- Bacterial pneumonia and other respiratory infections.
- Strep throat.
- Ear infections.
- Urinary tract infections.
- Sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia.
- Certain skin infections such as bacterial cellulitis.
Each class of antibiotic works slightly differently in the fight against harmful bacteria in the body. Some antibiotics stop bacteria from building cell walls, effectively killing them. Penicillin works in this way. Others stop the protein-building process; without protein, the bacteria cannot survive. Other antibiotics interrupt DNA synthesis, destroying the bacteria and preventing new growth.
It is important to know that while antibiotics are very effective at killing pathogenic, or infection-causing bacteria, they can harm good bacteria as well. Good bacteria are important for maintaining gut health and a strong immune system, which is why antibiotics can be tough on your body and should not be overused. Antibiotic use is associated with a very serious opportunistic infection called C. difficile, which causes severe diarrhea and may lead to colon damage or death.4
Antibiotic Side Effects
When used as directed, antibiotics are generally considered safe. Healthy people who rarely take antibiotics, and who only take them for a short period of time when they do, are unlikely to experience serious side effects. However, there are some risks to taking antibiotics (as well as taking them incorrectly), which is why they should only be used when needed.7 Never push your doctor to prescribe them to you if he or she doesn’t think you need them.
Antibiotics are somewhat indiscriminate in terms of the organisms that they impact. Because some “good” bacteria is often killed along with the pathogenic targets, systemic antibiotics can upset the normal balance of symbiotic bacteria in your body—giving rise to conditions such as:7
- Upset stomach.
- Yeast infections.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that it is important to follow the directions on your antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Take the entire course of your medication; do not stop early and store unused medication for future use. Often, antibiotics aren’t needed to resolve common illnesses such as bronchitis, and taking them when not required can lead to the development of antibiotic resistance. When a pathogen becomes resistant to antibiotics, it becomes much more challenging to treat. Such is the case with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”—strains of previously treatable bacterial pathogens that have evolved in such a way as to elude the traditional antibiotic treatment and so have become much more threatening for those who get it.8
When someone is truly in need of antibiotics, the benefits of taking them certainly outweigh the risk of possible side effects. When they aren’t needed and/or not used correctly (e.g., not taken for the full prescribed course), antibiotics may not only be ineffective, but they can lead to secondary, opportunistic infections and antibiotic resistance, all while exposing you to other negative side effects (e.g., gastrointestinal distress, drug sensitivity reactions, etc.).8
What Happens if You Drink Alcohol While on Antibiotics?
Though moderate drinking is thought to be relatively safe with many antibiotics, most antibiotic medications are packaged with a warning to avoid alcohol during the course of treatment. Heavy drinking may impair immune system function, making it more difficult to recover from infection, and there are certain antibiotics known to interact negatively with alcohol.9
For example, when alcohol is ingested with specific antibiotics, such as cefotetan and metronidazole, a reaction may arise that is similar what a person would experience after drinking while on the alcoholism treatment drug, disulfiram (Antabuse). Symptoms might include:9
- Dilation of the blood vessels that causes flushed skin.
- Hypotension (low blood pressure).
- Rapid heart rate.
Additionally, some researchers have suggested that certain medications may interfere with the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol, resulting in a higher blood alcohol concentration (BAC).9
Erythromycin, commonly used to treat skin and respiratory infections, may speed up gastric emptying, thereby increasing the rate of absorption of alcohol in the intestine, resulting in increased blood alcohol levels.9
Liver damage may also occur should you drink while taking isoniazid (used to treat tuberculosis).10
If you are worried that you might be experiencing an adverse reaction while drinking and taking antibiotics, do not hesitate to seek medical attention.
In addition to the above side effects, alcohol can hinder certain immune system processes and have a negative impact on your body’s ability to recover from the targeted infection. Just one episode of binge drinking can result in a decline in the immune system response and a decreased ability to fight off infection.11
Alcohol can also interfere with healthy sleeping and eating patterns as well as the body’s ability to absorb vital nutrients.12,13 All of these factors play an important role in recovering from illness and maintaining health.
Avoid Alcohol While Taking Medications
Drinking alcohol while taking medications can be harmful. If you have been prescribed antibiotics, you are likely to be suffering from an illness that requires appropriate rest and treatment.
Antibiotics have been developed to fight specific bacterial cells, but they should only be taken when absolutely necessary and should only be taken as directed. If your doctor advises you to avoid alcohol, it’s best to follow their instructions. Not only can alcohol interact badly with some medications but it can interrupt your healing process.
Most antibiotics are prescribed on a short-term basis, and it is best to temporarily avoid alcohol until you are no longer taking your medication.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus. (2018). Antibiotics.
- University of Utah, Genetic Science Learning Center. (n.d.). What is an antibiotic?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Antibiotic Prescribing and Use in Doctor’s Offices.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Be Antibiotics Aware: Smart Use, Best Care.
- New York State Department of Health. (2006). Chlamydia (chlamydia trachomatis genital infection).
- Merck Manual. (2017). Cellulitis.
- Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics. (2014). General Background: When & How to take Antibiotics.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Be Antibiotics Aware Partner Toolkit.
- Weatherman, R. and Crabb, D. (1999). Alcohol and Medication Interactions. Alcohol Research & Health, 23(1), 40-54.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Harmful Interactions, mixing alcohol with medicines.
- WebMd. (n.d.). Binge Drinking May Weaken Immune System.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (1993). Alcohol Alert.